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Censorship and public opinion: Press and politics in the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 December 2020

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Summary

The Helvetic Revolution was without doubt the most significant disruption in Swiss history, which had developed rather continuously in the course of four hundred years. The rupture was twofold. First, the new constitution, shaped by the hands of the French Directoire, abolished the sovereignty of each of the thirteen former cantons; the federalist organization was replaced by a strong central state unknown to Swiss history up to that time, as were the new principles of human rights and the separation of powers. At the same time, this new constitution was introduced and backed by French troops, leading the Swiss people to perceive the revolution also as an occupation by armed forces.

This contribution will discuss whether and how this sudden change affected the relation between press and politics, censorship and public opinion. In what follows, I will first hint briefly at the pre-revolutionary historical context and then discuss the introduction of the freedom of the press and its effects on the production, the contents, and the style of printed periodicals. Finally I shall discuss some legislative and practical problems of ‘enlightened censorship’.

Press and censorship before 1798

In contrast to many other parts of Europe, there was no absolutism in Old Regime Switzerland with its population of about 1.5 million. The ruling aristocracies in the thirteen sovereign cantons were careful, however, to keep political affairs secret. The deliberations of the different political bodies – the rather loosely institutionalized Swiss federal Diet at the ‘national’ or ‘federal’ level, and the powerful councils in each canton – remained secret as a rule. Newspapers and journals were all monitored by the cantons’ censorship, which was organized as a sort of state-church joint-venture and had all pre-modern tools of censorship at hand: destruction of printed texts, prohibition to print texts, special taxes, and security deposits as well as printing privileges, (in)direct subsidies for publishers, and so on. Censorship by the state or the church included the control of the production, presentation, distribution, and perception of all kind of information, be it written or printed texts, spoken or sung words, performed gestures, staged theatres, painted or printed images.

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The Political Culture of the Sister Republics, 1794-1806
France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Italy
, pp. 159 - 170
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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